“When we go down to the low-tide line, we enter a world that is as old as the earth itself—the primeval meeting place of the elements of earth and water, a place of compromise and conflict and eternal change. For us as living creatures it has special meaning as an area in or near which some entity that could be distinguished as Life first drifted in shallow waters—reproducing, evolving, yielding that endlessly varied stream of living things that has surged through time and space to occupy the earth.” (Preface, The Edge of the Sea)
Rachel Carson never set out to be one of the foremost conservationists of the 20th Century.
Raised in Pennsylvania, she was the only one of her three siblings to graduate from high school. She went on to college, where a required science course so captured her interest that she changed her major from English to biology. Upon graduating, she became one of the few women accepted into Johns Hopkins University’s graduate program. She earned her master’s degree in Zoology in 1932, completing her dissertation on the embryonic development of kidneys in fish.
Armed with her degrees and in search of steady employment at the height of the Great Depression, she found a temporary position with the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries—what is now called the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service. The agency was looking for someone to write copy for a year-long weekly educational radio program about aquatic life called “Romance Under the Waters.”
Carson had found her niche.
Her writing for the Bureau of Fisheries inspired other pieces about the waters near her new home of Washington, D.C., which she began submitting to local newspapers and magazines. Her supervisor at the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries was so impressed by her work that he asked Carson to write the introduction to a public brochure about the Bureau’s projects. She also took the civil service exam and outscored all the other applicants. In 1936, she became the second woman ever hired into a full-time professional position at the Bureau. Her official title: junior aquatic biologist.
When Carson submitted an article her supervisor had deemed “too good” for a government brochure to the Atlantic Monthly, her writing started to gain national recognition. The magazine turned it into an essay published as “Undersea.” It begins, poetically, “Who has known the ocean? Neither you nor I, with our earthbound sense, know the foam and surge of the tide that beats over the crab hiding under the seaweed of his tide-pool home….” The essay captured the attention of publishing house Simon & Schuster, who worked with her to turn it into her first book, Under the Sea Wind. Published in 1941, it earned rave reviews, if not significant sales. Her work at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service continued, with more responsibilities, and she began to write her second book, The Sea Around Us, a scientific and poetic “life history” of the sea, which she finished in early 1950.
In fall of 1950, inspired by another book idea she had for a shore guide and awaiting the publication of The Sea Around Us, Carson made the decision to apply for a Guggenheim Fellowship. In her Guggenheim Fellowship application, her proposal was: “To prepare a guide to seashore life on the Atlantic coast of the United States which will serve not only as a handbook for identification, but to provide an understanding of the biological principles that control life in this zone. An ecological concept will dominate the book. It will be so organized a written as to be practically useful in the field, and will be designed for amateur seashore naturalists. It will be a creative synthesis of information from a fresh point of view, not previously presented in a book on this subject.”
When she found out that she had received a Guggenheim Fellowship in the spring of 1951, Carson replied with thanks to Guggenheim Foundation president Henry Allen Moe and associate secretary James Mathias: “I am deeply appreciative of this expression of approval and confidence on the part of the Committee of Selection and the Trustees of the Foundation. You may be assured that I will do my utmost to merit it.”
Carson promptly applied for a year-long leave of absence from the Fish and Wildlife Service to begin in June. Media outlets requested interviews and photo shoots. In addition, news began circulating about the imminent publication of The Sea Around Us. Published at the beginning of July, the new book earned a spot on the New York Times Bestseller List within three weeks, and Carson garnered more media attention than she’d ever had before—slightly to the shy naturalist’s chagrin. With the free time she now had, Carson spent the next year working doggedly on her new shore guide project, traveling up and down the eastern coast—from her beloved mid-coast Maine down to the Florida Keys.
Thanks to the income from the success of The Sea Around Us, Carson finally made the leap to full-time authorship. She wrote to President Moe, “The Fellowship made it possible for me to take leave from my position and begin the shore work [for the new book] during a period when I could not possibly have done so without assistance.” In June 1952, at the end of her Guggenheim Fellowship, Carson officially resigned from her government role. In her resignation forms, she gave a straightforward reason for quitting: “To devote my time to writing.” And so she did, continuing her immersive research on coastal ecosystems.
“The Fellowship made it possible for me to take leave from my position and begin the shore work [for the new book] during a period when I could not possibly have done so without assistance.”
While she first envisioned her book as a guide to the coast through sketches of creatures that called the environment home, she had a breakthrough in the summer of 1953. Instead, Carson realized the guide should be structured around what she saw as the three different types of shores: rock, sand, and coral. “This solution frees my style to be itself,” Carson wrote to her editor. According to Linda Lear, Carson’s celebrated biographer, “This new scheme allowed her to write about each geological area as a living ecological community rather than individual organisms. On the rocky shores life was dominated by the tides; the waves ruled the sandy beaches; and the ocean currents determined life along the southern coasts. The Atlantic coast demonstrated these environments, common to shores all over the earth, with [as Carson said] ‘the clarity of a well-conceived scientific experiment.’”
She wrote to the Guggenheim Foundation with excitement when the new book was turned in to her publisher, writing President Moe, “I wish…to tell you that my own book on the sea shore, for which I was granted a Fellowship several years ago, has now been completed and turned over to Houghton Mifflin. They expect to publish in the fall of this year. The title is ‘The Edge of the Sea.’”
The Edge of the Sea came out in October 1955. Bolstered by its appearance in two installments in The New Yorker a few months before, the book stayed on the New York Times bestseller list for five months. As Lear writes, “With its publication and acclaim, Carson had proven that the author of The Sea Around Us was no ephemeral star on the literary horizon but a writer to be reckoned with now and in the future.”
The Guggenheim Fellowship marked a turning point in Carson’s life and career. With the Foundation’s financial support, Carson was able to take the time she so desired to focus on the writing projects she was passionate about, ultimately leading to her decision to resign from her government position and pursue writing full-time. Completing her “Sea Trilogy” cleared the mental space to pursue other projects. As Carson wrote to a friend at the end of 1955, “It is hard now even to remember the dark roads of some of the preceding years, and the hours of despair in which I thought maybe they would never lead anywhere, and certainly never to such a peak. …I think it was a very critical period in my writing career—this first book after The Sea [Around Us]—and with it behind me, and happily so, I can’t believe any of the future roads will ever be quite so dark and arduous.”
Carson’s next book—and the last before her death from breast cancer in 1964—was, of course, Silent Spring. Published in 1962, the book is credited with launching the modern environmental movement. As Jill Lepore wrote in her 2018 article on Carson in The New Yorker: “[Silent Spring] provoked the passage of the Clean Air Act (1963), the Wilderness Act (1964), the National Environmental Policy Act (1969), the Clean Water Act and the Endangered Species Act (both 1972); and led to the establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency, in 1970. The number of books that have done as much good in the world can be counted on the arms of a starfish.”
Header image of Rachel Carson and her illustrator Bob Hines conducting fieldwork in 1952 in the Atlantic Ocean via the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.